Born John Towner Williams, February 8, 1932, in Flushing, NY; son of John (a percussionist) and Esther Williams; married Barbara Ruick, c. 1956 (died, 1974); married Samantha Winslow (a photographer), 1980; children: (first marriage) Jennifer, Mark, Joe. Education: Attended University of California, Los Angeles; studied orchestra with Robert van Epps at Los Angeles City College; studied composition with Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, c. 1950-52; studied piano with Rosina Lhevinne at Julliard School of Music, 1954-55 Addresses: Agent--Michael Gorfaine, The Gorfaine/Schwartz Agency, Inc., 3301 Barham Blvd., No. 201, Los Angeles, CA 90068.

Not since Henry Mancini of the 1960s has a composer attained the popular recognition of John Williams, who created music for some of Hollywood's most successful motion pictures of all time; Star Wars, E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, Jurassic Park, and Schindler's List represent a small sampling of the musician's extensive list of credits. Undoubtedly the most dominant force in film music since the 1970s, the era in which he initiated the first of several collaborations with filmmakers Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, Williams realized the importance of music as it relates to the silver screen and possessed a unique ability to capture the emotional core of a film, to articulate through music what the audience sees. "Film conspires with your imagination to remove you from your present reality and take you on a freewheeling trip through your unconsciousness," composer Elmer Bernstein once said about the power of film music, as quoted by Timothy E. Sheurer in Popular Music and Society. "What better companion for such a medium than music? Music is, quite possibly, the most removed from reality. Of all the arts, music makes the most direct appeal to the emotions. It is a non-plastic, non-intellectual communication between sound vibration and spirit. The listener not generally burdened with a need to ask what it means. The listener assesses how the music made him feel."

Whether scoring music for comedies, musicals, disaster and adventure films, or blockbusters, the award-winning musician enhanced each new project with his original scores, writing music that was not just mere accompaniment, but could stand on its own merit as well. Over the years, Williams saw his soundtracks sell well into the millions, earning him numerous gold and platinum records. An accomplished musician beyond the world of Hollywood film as well, Williams has written several concert pieces, including two symphonies, and served as conductor and director for the Boston Pops, one of the world's most recognized orchestras. "When writing music away from the film world, I felt I could be more experimental. I felt I could test myself and try not to be daunted by the great masters of the past," he explained to Los Angeles Times writer Chris Pasles in 1997.

Born on February 8, 1932, in Flushing, New York, John Williams was himself the son of a movie studio musician who had also worked as a CBS radio orchestra percussionist. Taking cue from his father, Williams started playing piano at the age of six, picking up the bassoon, cello, clarinet, trombone, and trumpet as well by the time he entered grade school. Eventually, Williams formed a small band at school, though he soon discovered that instruments like the piano and clarinet could not be played from the same sheet of music. Hence, he taught himself how to transpose music, spending hours in the basement of his home pouring over orchestration books. "I applied the principles of Rimsky-Korsakov to the pop tunes of 1940 and 1941," he told Richard Dyer in Ovation, as quoted by Rob Nagel in Contemporary Musicians, Volume 9, "and by the time our band was in high school, we were already quite sophisticated." Although Williams was still in his teens, he had nevertheless already discovered his calling as a composer and conductor.

Moving with his family in 1948 to Los Angeles, California, Williams decided to focus on a professional career in music after completing high school. Around 1950 Williams enrolled at UCLA, where he took courses in orchestration and also studied compositions privately with Italian composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. Around 1952, Williams joined the United States Air Force, serving for two years during the Korean War, before returning to New York in 1954 to enroll at the Julliard School of Music. While living in New York, he studied piano with Madame Rosina Lhevinne and worked as a jazz pianist in night clubs and on recordings.

After completing his apprenticeship at Julliard and concluding his brief stint as a jazz club player, Williams returned to Los Angeles in 1956 and soon landed jobs on a regular basis as a pianist in the Hollywood film studios. However, Williams' greater talents lay in composition and orchestration, and established film scorers such as Bernard Herrmann, Alfred Newman, and Franz Waxman soon took notice, inviting Williams to orchestrate cues for their material. The veteran composers also encouraged Williams to focus on his own writing, and while he was able to score some low budget films, his first big break arrived during the late1950s, when studios suddenly needed a vast amount of music specifically for television.

Some of Williams' first television jobs included performances, such as playing the famous riff in Henry Mancini's theme to Peter Gunn and appearing in the detective series Johnny Staccato. However, he soon focused his energies on composition, mostly working for Revue Studios, the television production arm of Universal Studios. Under contract with Revue to pen as many as 39 scores a year--writing 20 to 25 minutes of music each week--Williams gained invaluable experience in spite of the pressures, writing music for such shows as Playhouse 90, Checkmate, Kraft Playhouse, and many others. "Dramatic anthologies are a thing of the past on television now, but they provided the greatest possible training ground for me," he recalled to critic Leonard Feather in the April 1969 issue of International Musician, as quoted in the John Williams Web Pages. "I had never learned about movie or television writing in a formal way, but I gained a great deal of knowledge simply by being around people like Franz Waxman and Alfred Newman; I observed their methods closely and intimately while I was playing piano in the studio orchestras. The good luck of being in physical proximity with so many of the masters provided me with the technique I needed by the time I got to television." And just as observing his predecessors prepared the composer for television work, his hands-on training in that realm, for which Williams had to learn to adapt music to a wide range of settings, in turn helped pave the way for his forthcoming ventures into film.

In 1959, Williams took his first leap into the motion picture format with his score for Daddy-O, spending the first half of the 1960s composing an occasional film score--primarily for lighter comedic fare such as Gidget Goes to Rome and Bachelor Flat--amid his busy television schedule. Meanwhile, Williams somehow managed to find time to write "serious" compositions, such as the ensemble work Prelude and Fugue, as well as to accept session work as a pianist, arranger, and conductor. By the middle part of the decade, Williams was receiving more offers to work in the motion picture format, scoring music for films like The Killers and The Plainsman, and less often writing themes for television series like Gilligan's Island and Lost in Space. In the late 1960s and into the 1970s, Williams wrote music for television movies, including 1968s Heidi, 1970s Jane Eyre, and 1972's The Screaming Woman.

However, Williams would dedicate the remainder of his career primarily to film. Williams' first major success arrived in 1968, when he earned his first of many Academy Award nominations for his work in Valley of the Dolls. Nominations for both The Reivers and Goodbye, Mr. Chips followed in 1970, and in 1972, he finally won the honor for Fiddler on the Roof. More nominations, not to mention popular recognition, followed in the 1970s for features such as The Poseidon Adventure, Images, Tom Sawyer, and The Towering Inferno.

Another turning point in Williams' career resulted in 1974, when he teamed for the first time with a young filmmaker named Steven Spielberg for Sugarland Express. Jennings Lane, then the vice president of Universal, told Williams after assigning Spielberg to his first feature film that he ought to meet with the aspiring director. "So I had lunch with Steven in Beverly Hills. I was 40 and he was 23, and I felt like a kind of Dutch uncle, especially because he looked as if he were all of 16," Williams recalled of his first encounter with Spielberg, as quoted by Dyer in a 1997 Boston Globe interview. "He was beardless then, and so polite, sweet, and bright. He also had an astonishing accumulation of information. He knew more about the film composer Bernard Herrmann than I did--and Benny was my friend! Steven told me he could sing all the themes from movies I had scored, like The Cowboys and The Reivers--and he could!"

After Sugarland Express, Williams continued to team with Spielberg with often astounding results. Some of their pairings included Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Jurassic Park, Schindler's List, Amistad, and Saving Private Ryan, with Jaws, E.T., and Schindler's List all winning Academy Awards in 1975, 1982, and 1993 respectively for best original score. "I guess you could say that Steven has been a very pivotal figure in my life!," Williams said to Dyer of his relationship with Spielberg, who also introduced the composer to his friend and fellow filmmaker George Lucas.

Lucas would become Williams' other most frequent collaborator, beginning in 1977 with Star Wars, a film that earned the musician yet another Academy Award for best original score. Williams admitted later that he, as well as Spielberg and Lucas, had all underestimated the success of the film. "I thought it would be a successful Saturday-afternoon movie; that is the category I had put it in," he told Dyer in the Boston Globe. "What I didn't realize was that all aspects of the public would be entranced by it." Also not realizing that Star Wars was to be a trilogy, Williams joined Lucas again for 1980s The Empire Strikes Back and 1983's Return of the Jedi. And when Lucas asked Williams to score music for his new trilogy, a prequel to Star Wars, the composer agreed. The first installment of the new series arrived in 1999 with Star Wars: Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, another popular success, and Williams started work on the two forthcoming film scores.

In total, Williams penned music for more than 75 films; examples of other noted scores include 1979s Superman, 1987's The Witches of Eastwick, 1988's The Accidental Tourist, 1989's Born on the Fourth of July, 1991's JFK, 1995's Nixon, 1996's Sleepers, and 1999's Angela's Ashes, adapted from Frank McCourt's acclaimed memoir. By the end of the 1990s, Williams had received 35 Academy Award nominations, taking home a total of five Oscars, four British Academy Awards, 16 Grammy Awards, and three Golden Globe Awards.

Although he earned mainstream attention for his film and television work, Williams pursued other interests as well. His other compositions include two symphonies; a bassoon concerto premiered by the New York Philharmonic in 1995; a cello concerto premiered by Yo-Yo Ma and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1994; concertos for flute and violin recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra; concertos for clarinet and tuba; and a trumpet concerto premiered by the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra in 1996. In addition, Williams composed the NBC News theme "The Mission," a piece entitled "Liberty Fanfare" for the rededication of the Statue of Liberty, "We're Lookin' Good!" for the Special Olympics for the organization's 1987 International Summer Games, as well as the themes for the 1984, 1988, and 1996 Summer Olympic Games.

In 1980, Williams replaced the late Arthur Fiedler as conductor of the Boston Pops, a post he held until his retirement in December of 1993. During his tenure, he recorded several acclaimed albums with the orchestra and led the Pops on United States tours in 1985, 1989, and 1992, as well as on three tours of Japan in 1987, 1990, and 1993. Other major orchestras for which he served as a guest conductor included the London Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Denver Symphony, the San Francisco Symphony, the Dallas Symphony, the Indianapolis Symphony, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Widely acknowledged for his concert compositions, Williams earned honorary doctorate degrees in music from fourteen American universities and in 1993, became an artist-in-residence at the Tanglewood Music Center in Massachusetts.

Williams realized that his connections to both the concert and film world are somewhat out of the ordinary. "The two areas of activity are so vastly different, as are the requirements of the composer, both technically and temperamentally. You haven't seen film composers become successful as concert composers. The reverse is also true," he told Pasles. "Thirty or 40 years ago, serious conservatory students wouldn't deign to even aspire to written for film. That's not true any more. I've met many young composers--very very gifted ones--who are very interested in films. It really is the popular art medium of our era."

by Laura Hightower

John Williams's Career

Worked as jazz pianist in New York City night clubs, c. 1954-55; pianist in Hollywood film studios such as Columbia Pictures and Twentieth Century Fox, beginning in 1956; contracted by Revue Studios to pen television themes, beginning in the late-1950s; wrote first film score for Daddy-O, 1959; teamed with Steven Spielberg for the first time for Sugarland Express, 1974; collaborated with George Lucas for the first time for Star Wars, 1977; conductor and music director for the Boston Pops Orchestra, 1980-93; artist-in-residence at Tanglewood Music Center in MA, 1993--; frequent guest conductor with the London Symphony Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and others.

John Williams's Awards

Selected awards: Seventh Annual Career Achievement Award, Society for the Preservation of Film Music, 1991; Richard Kirk Award for outstanding career achievement, BMI Film and Television, 1999; Academy Awards for best adaptation and original song score for the following: Fiddler on the Roof, 1971; best original score for Jaws, 1975; best original score for Star Wars, 1977; best original score for E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, 1982; best original score for Schindler's List, 1993; 17 Grammy Awards, four British Academy Awards, three Golden Globe Awards; two Emmy Awards; honorary doctorate degrees in music from several American universities, including Boston University, New England Conservatory of Music, Tufts University, the University of Southern California; numerous gold and platinum records.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

December 5, 2004: Williams received a Kennedy Center Honor. Source: USA Today, www.usatoday.com/life/people/2004-12-05-kennedy-center_x.htm, December 6, 2004.

January 16, 2006: Williams won the Golden Globe Award for best original score, in Memoirs of a Geisha. Source: TheGoldenGlobes.com, www.thegoldenglobes.com, January 19, 2006.

Further Reading

Sources

BooksPeriodicalsOnline

Visitor Comments Add a comment…

almost 8 years ago

John Williams is amazing. He writes great music for movies that I love tremendously,such as Star Wars. I love how he can bring out the excitment in the music.